Comically in tune

The Band’s Visit

The Band’s Visit
Starring Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri, Khalifa Natour, Imad Jabarin and Tarak Kopty. Directed by Eran Kolirin. Pageant Theatre. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

A sad-sack policemen’s band from Egypt, visiting Israel on some kind of cultural exchange, arrives in a remote town only to find that it’s gotten its directions mixed up and is stuck for the night in a place that has no hotel, very little nightlife, and only one café. The locals, including the haughtily handsome woman who runs the café, are baffled at first by this small crew of misfits and nitwits in blue uniforms, but they try to help them out anyway.

From the outset, writer-director Eran Kolirin approaches this dimly unpromising situation in terms of absurdist comedy. There are unmistakable touches of deadpan drollery and low-key slapstick early on, glimmers of comic pathos trailing bits from the silent-movie clowning and Theatre of the Absurd in its more farcical moments.

It’s also an amusingly offhanded comedy of silences and empty spaces, but one in which the air of wry detachment does not preclude the emergence, gradually and quietly, of a handful of minimalist character dramas.

Tewfiq (Sasson Galai), the taciturn bandleader, and Simon (Khalifs Natour), his semi-depressed assistant, are both haunted by assorted past failures. Younger band member Khaled (Saleh Bakri) is a budding lothario and half-hearted rebel, and he gets involved in the love lives of a couple of the locals without half trying.

Most vital of all is Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), the café proprietor. Both stern and provocative, she is by far the most forthcoming and assured of the film’s broadly sketched characters, and as such she activates much of what proves most consequential, story-wise, in the course of the band’s brief sojourn.

The opening and closing credits are in both Hebrew and Arabic, a mixture that extends into the film’s dialogue, which also includes some English. But even with its mild aura of culture clash, The Band’s Visit is much more a goodwill gesture than a political statement. And the bittersweet tone of even the more sentimental elements of the story seems a recognition of that.